SAN DIEGO – Climbing the five steps to another interview stage, his fourth of five media stops, Richard Bland turned to no one in particular and chuckled: “You’re telling me Rory does this week-in, week-out?”
Ah, yes, the obligations of the frontrunner, a position with which Bland had no experience until, well, about five weeks ago, when at 48 he became the oldest first-time winner in European Tour history.
Now, he’s leading the U.S. Open – at 5-under 137 ahead of a host of major champions and consistent winners and uber-talents who were supposed to have easily zipped past the old guy playing in just his third major this century.
And so during the media car wash, Bland talked ... and talked ... and talked, probably seeing more interviewers and facing more questions and giving more detailed answers than at any point in his 28-year career. He was as endearing as ever, which should come as little surprise to those who watched his viral social-media moment with his family following his long-awaited title (478 starts!) at the British Masters on May 15. A visibly emotional Bland hunched over a TV monitor, spotted his crying mother and asked: “You OK, Mom?”
“No!” she blurted through tears. “I’ve been waiting for this for so long.”
“You and me both,” he replied.
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) May 15, 2021
But this wasn’t just a sweet family moment, affecting only those closest to him. Messages poured in from all over the globe. China. Australia. America. Random people in random places who were compelled to reach out and tell the 48-year-old European Tour lifer how inspired they were by his persistence, his patience, his class.
“That’s something I wasn’t expecting,” he said. “I’m just a guy who’s won a golf tournament, really, when you boil it down.”
But sports fans love underdogs and cagey veterans who use their guile and experience to their advantage, who fight back against relentless time and ruthless talent, who keep pushing despite diminishing results. That’s why, a week after Bland’s breakthrough, Phil Mickelson’s PGA Championship triumph resonated so deeply.
“This has been a year for us oldies,” Bland said.
How could you not love that?
And how could you not love this:
An everyman who is sporting the logo of his London-based club, The Wisley, after being sent 10 caps for the week. (“I don’t have a hat deal at the minute, so if anyone is offering ...”)
An animal lover who keeps his four-year-old driver under a rhinoceros headcover. (“Two things I can’t stand are three-putting and animal cruelty.”)
A wisecracker who puts in his Twitter bio that he’s a “European tour professional golfer during the week (few weekends off),” which is a mild understatement for the career 56% cut-maker.
A grinder who loses his card at 46, briefly contemplates his next move (“What am I gonna do, go and get an office job? I’m not that intelligent, I’m afraid”) and instead goes to work, earning back his status against Challenge Tour players who might be half his age but are not yet as skilled.
An aging warrior who still delights in sticking it to the “gym guys,” since all he reaches for now is a resistance band.
And yet here Bland was Friday, holding court at his final media stop and making Bryson DeChambeau, the revolutionary defending champion, wait for his turn at the mic. After five minutes, an official finally moved DeChambeau into the next interview bay, where he discussed at length his pitch-black range session and how he was jarred awake in the middle of the night by a swing key and how, once, just once, he wanted all facets of his game to click at the same time.
Bland, meanwhile, appeared utterly unburdened, dishing not on some technical epiphany but rather his evening plans to grab Mexican food in downtown Del Mar. It’s the quiet confidence of a man who toiled until he finally captured what he wanted, and now the rest – multiple victories, major contention, maybe a start next April at Augusta National – can only add to his immense satisfaction.
“I want more. Every golfer wants more. Hopefully I can do it again,” he said. “But it’s kind of nice when you look on the European Tour website now, I’ve got that ‘1’ by my name.”
Alongside for this improbable U.S. Open ride is his caddie, Kyle Roadley, who can relate to the feeling of being aged out of his profession. A few years ago, he was on the bag for a talented up-and-comer named Sami Valimaki, but he was sacked shortly thereafter, he said, because his 22-year-old boss preferred someone closer to his own age. Fair enough, and now Roadley, 53, and Bland, 48, are taking on Torrey Pines together, even if their roughly 50 years of experience has never included major-championship contention. At least until now.
Indeed, Bland has played in as many majors – four – as one of his chief competitors, Brooks Koepka, has won.
There have been other opportunities, he explained. Four qualifiers lost for the U.S. Open. Three chances missed on The Open. “I could have maybe played closer to double-figure majors,” he said, but with so many accomplished players stacked behind him, eager to zoom past the old guy, he didn’t bother digging in or lamenting what could have been.
“I’m not going to lose any sleep over that,” he said. “I’m just enjoying this one right now.”